Mali glanced down to check her next foothold, careful not to look beyond it to the street, three storeys down. She settled her toe into it, then pushed up and grabbed at the window-ledge.
“Why do you still insist on doing this?” Nick complained. “If you’d stop being so stubborn…”
She jerked slightly as he spoke, missed, and hung from her other hand. “Shut. Up.”
“Mali, come on. This is stupid, and dangerous.”
“It’s a lot more dangerous when you’re distracting me.” She got her feet back under her, pushed her toes down hard, then grabbed upwards again.
“But we’re partners!”
“Not any more, we’re not.”
“You and me, buddies, the best team in the Southmarkets… Come on, Mali,” Nick continued, oblivious.
Mali pulled herself up on the window-ledge, walking her feet upwards, until she could get her feet up onto the ledge. When she stood up, her nose was almost touching the window-glass, and the thick red curtains were closed, just as Jackson had promised.
“Shall I sort out the window?” Nick asked brightly, from where he was floating in mid-air behind her. She did her best to ignore the faint tracery of supporting magic that hung in the air underneath him. She wasn’t a hedge-witch. She couldn’t see magic. She didn’t want to think about magic, or have anything to do with magic.
“Nick. If you don’t bugger off right this second, I’m going to pin your ear to a drainpipe.”
“Fine. Fine. I know when I’m not wanted.” He paused. “We could talk about it once you’re down?”
“Gods. Anything to get rid of you. Half an hour, in the Rose and Thorn. Get mine in.”
Nick sighed gustily behind her, then there was silence.
Her payoff from Jackson jingled in her pocket as she walked into the Rose and Thorn. Nick was in their usual corner, with two glasses on the scratched table.
Mali slid onto the bench, and bumped his shoulder companionably. For a moment, it was like a hundred other evenings after a job. But Nick was thinner now, and his sleeves were pulled down right past his wrists.
“So,” he said, pushing a glass towards her. “Let us discuss taking advantage of the advantages that are available to you.” He grinned at her, eyes slightly too bright.
“Not interested,” she said bluntly.
He sounded just like when she’d first met him, two years ago. Just after she’d escaped. She’d been new, and lost, and terrified. Nick had taken her under his wing, cheered her up, and been truly impressed with her climbing. The first job they’d done, he’d used just that shocked tone of voice to talk her out of her share of the gains. Then he’d made a pass at her; but once past that awkwardness, they’d made a good team. Nick and Mali, cat-burglary a speciality.
“Magic swallows you up, Nick. Look at you. How many pounds have you lost since you started doing this?”
Three months. Only three months. A month to realise he was doing it, a month to realise he wasn’t going to stop for her asking, and a month since she’d left him to it.
“I’ve always been skinny!”
“Not that skinny. Not to mention…” She grabbed his wrist and shoved his sleeve up. Neat parallel scars ran up the inside of his arm. More than she’d expected, for just three months. Nick jerked his hand away and glared at her, pulling his sleeve back down.
“Just spelling, or selling?” she asked.
He scowled and looked away.
“Both,” she concluded. “How long you gonna be able to keep that up?”
The blood banks would buy a pint or two of anyone’s blood, and sell it on, to the hedge-witches in the Southmarket, or to the Society on the other side of the river. Non-humans got double rates; magic-users triple. But if you sold it, you couldn’t use it yourself, not safely. Nick never did have any sense.
“That’s my business, okay?” Nick said. “Look, Mali, I’m not asking you to start using magic, if you’re that against it. I’m just sayin’, why not let me mind my own business, and come back and work with me? We’ve always done well together, right?”
“Not gonna take advantage of you doing that to yourself,” Mali said, arms folded.
“C’mon, Mali,” he wheedled. “Just give it a go. Just one job…”
She sighed. Maybe —maybe, if they did a job, he’d have a bit of cash. He wouldn’t stop using it himself; but maybe he’d stop selling, at least for a bit.
He’d saved her once, though she’d never told him what she was running from; then they’d both looked out for each other. Maybe it was her turn to save him. Maybe she’d just given up too easily before. Maybe this was still home, the two of them, the way it had been.
“Right. Yeah. One job. You got something in mind?”
He looked slightly sheepish. “Well, yeah, I said to Ariadne…”
Mali shook her head, stomach twisting as her brief flare of hope died. “No way. Not anything for that fricking blood-dealer.”
If Nick was getting jobs from Ariadne, he wasn’t just a thief using a little magic any more. Ariadne was a strong hedge-witch in her own right, who only ran magic jobs —which was why Mali had always steered well clear of her —and she expected a lot. She’d been in the business a long, long time. Mali wouldn’t —she couldn’t —get that far in. The storm-clouds of her memories swirled, threatening.
“Seriously, Mali, it’d be perfect for us…”
“Drop it,” she said. She downed her beer and stood up, trying to keep her knees steady. “You ever go back to regular thieving, you let me know, yeah? Take care of yourself, Nick.”
She wanted, desperately, to run, from Nick and magic and all the lurking memories, but she kept herself to a walk. You couldn’t run from memories. You could only put them way, way down, and keep them there.
When she got home, she lay in bed and cursed herself for a fool. She should never have stayed this long. Sure, when she first met Nick, she’d run out of other options; but after that, she could still have gone. But by then Nick had been her friend, her first ever friend. And it had felt like safety here, in the alleys of Southmarket, where Mali who climbed and stole and was utterly magic-free could never be recognised as… She cut off the thought.
Nick wasn’t safe any more. This wasn’t home any more. But she knew more, now, than she had two years ago. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, she would buy herself some papers, good ones, and she would walk out of the gate and away from this damned magic-drenched city.
When she finally slept, her dreams were full of the tingle of magic, the flicker of candles, the metallic smell of blood pooling under her feet. She half-woke time and again, tangled in the sheet and sweating, then woke fully, finally, with the pre-dawn just showing through the shutters. She frowned up at the ceiling, trying to play back the noise that had awoken her, then got up. She’d just cast an eye outside, just to reassure herself.
She eased the door open a little, peered through, and gagged.
On the ground outside was Nick. Pale, blood-drained, and very definitely dead.
She wasn’t sure how she got to Ariadne’s. It was a series of snapshots: clothes, bringing Nick—Nick’s body—inside, rousing her neighbour to come and sit with him. She couldn’t bear that he would be alone. Her rage was a cold fire as she banged on Ariadne’s door. She might never have been here before, but you could hardly live in the Southmarket and not know where Ariadne was.
“Nick’s dead,” she said, when the older woman opened the door.
Ariadne shrugged. “Don’t look at me, dearie, it wasn’t my doing. And you would be his…?”
“We worked together. Before he used magic. And it was your doing. You sent him,” Mali said. Her throat felt swollen inside.
“I offered him a job, dearie,” Ariadne said. “You worked with Nick; will you tell me you’ve never done anything with risk?”
Mali took a ragged breath, and stepped inside. Ariadne stood back to let her past, eyeing her curiously. Inside, a neat workbench stood against the wall, with jars and bottles and pouches lining the shelves above it. The only other furniture was a battered chair by the fireplace with a faded quilt crumpled on the seat, and a large, solid chest.
“His blood’s been taken,” Mali said.
She wanted to say that that wouldn’t happen on the sort of job she took, but they would both know that for a lie. You could wind up dead just walking down the street round here, never mind thieving; and there was always a blood dealer who’d pay for a barely-breathing body and turn it into a drained, unbreathing one without asking too many questions of the vendor.
It could have happened. But it never had happened, not when it was Mali and Nick and no damn magic at all.
“Like I say, dearie. He knew the risks. And the rewards.”
“Did you get it offered to you?”
Ariadne scowled. “There’s no need to be rude, even if you are grieving. I don’t deal in death. You know that.”
Mali swallowed, and ducked her head.
Ariadne looked her up and down, eyes narrowing, then pulled a knife out of her apron pocket and sliced it shallowly across her forearm. She had a thick patchwork of scars, both old and barely scabbed over. Ariadne ran her fingers over the cut, tilted her head slightly, then wiped the knife on her apron and dropped it back into her pocket, frowning.
“I don’t do magic,” Mali said.
“I know that, dearie. But you could. Oh, you could. There’s something about you…”
She reached towards Mali, and Mali jumped back, suddenly alert. She did not want Ariadne to see anything more about her.
“I said, I don’t do magic.”
“Why are you here then, dearie?” Ariadne asked sharply. “Your friend died, and that I’m sorry for, but it wasn’t my doing. Try the Watch, if you’re looking for answers.”
Mali scoffed. “Yeah, like I want the Watch turning me upside down and shaking me.”
Ariadne shrugged. “It’s life-blood. The Society would be happy to deal with it and have no interest in anything else.” She was watching Mali intently.
Mali raised an eyebrow and hoped Ariadne didn’t see her shiver. “I don’t like magic. That don’t mean I want to let the Society loose down here. Wouldn’t have thought you would either.”
The Society weren’t known for their subtlety. Which was why the blood-dealers, and their clients, continued to exist; the cure was worse than the disease. And if the Watch would turn her upside down and shake her, the Society would turn her head inside-out as well while they were at it, and then, well. She wouldn’t do that.
Ariadne shrugged. “I’ve survived the Society and their little games this long. Just wanted to know if I should be tidying up.” She turned away to put another log on the fire.
Mali’s fury had ebbed a little, and she took a deep breath that felt like the first since she’d woken. Why was she here? She was looking for someone to blame for Nick’s death, and Ariadne had sent him out. But, yes, her and Nick, they’d both taken on plenty of risk in their time, separately and together. Nick would be furious if she put this on Ariadne.
Who had killed him, then? Them, she could blame.
“What was the job he went on last night?”
“Well now, there’s a thing,” Ariadne said. “It wasn’t my job at all, as it happens. Not last night. He came to say he couldn’t do what he’d said he would, after all. I hadn’t anything else, but someone came in from the Lines. Looking for Nick Shades, some customer of theirs asking for him. Nick was off quick as sixpence while I was still saying I was no one’s messaging service.” She spread her hands. “That’s all I know.”
If she’d said yes, last night, they’d have been on that other job, and Nick would still be safe. She could have kept him safe, and she hadn’t.
It was too late now. But she would not let him go unavenged.
“I’d be careful with revenge, dearie,” Ariadne said. “It doesn’t always end up how you’d expect. But who am I to offer you advice?”
She turned away, busying herself with something on the workbench at the side of the room, then spoke without turning round.
“Funny thing is, that first job, they asked for him by name, too. I wouldn’t have said Nick was that well known, myself. But money buys you foibles, doesn’t it.”
“Thank you,” Mali said, and turned away, the fury a burning-cold weight in her guts.
A tram rattled overhead, smoke belching behind it, as she stepped onto the Tall Bridge’s suspended walkway, joining the folk of all species walking north to jobs on the good side of the city, passing the night-shift cleaners yawning their way back again.
She glanced down at the river and frowned. Why had Nick’s body fetched up on her doorstep, and not down there? Who would have bothered, but not wake her? Her pace slowed. In memory, the dark spectre of the Baron moved behind the flickering of the candles…
No. If the Baron knew where she was, she’d be back there already. She’d escaped. She was fine. Someone had found Nick and not wanted to explain themselves to her, that was all. Everyone had known Nick and Mali. Her eyes prickled again.
What mattered was avenging him, not idle speculation. She walked faster.
At the end of the bridge, one set of tramlines dipped steeply to the embankment, and the other set carried on towards Two-Storey Station. Underneath it, opposite the steep stairs down from the walkway, was The Lines.
The exterior that looked trendily down-at-heel at night just looked shabby in the morning light. The Lines combined drinking den and introductions bureau: to people who could provide supplies, do small spells, handle this or that little magical job for you. White-shading-to-grey, at its darkest. You wouldn’t find anyone dealing in life-blood in the Lines; not even vein-blood these days, with the blood-banks so easy. Just folk using this charm and that to increase the power they got of themselves. The tingle of spell that hung around the place made Mali’s back crawl.
Round the back, the kitchen door was open. A lizard in an apron and a grubby vest was sweeping up, ignoring a short human with elaborate tattoos who was lecturing an invisible audience, hands waving.
The tattooed man broke off and looked at her, eyebrow raised. “Yes? What can I do for you, then?”
She reminded herself, firmly, that she just wanted information. No one at the Lines would deliberately get involved in something like this; not over this side of the city, with the Society so near at hand.
“You sent someone over to Ariadne, over the river, last night. After Nick Shades, for a job.”
Tattooed man eyed her narrowly, arms folded. “What of it? Perfectly legal and none of your damn business. He turned up, they went off, nowt to do with us.”
“Nick fetched up on my doorstep this morning,” Mali said. “All drained and white and dead. You know anything about that?”
“Nick? Really? Gods. Poor kid.” He shook his head. “I swear, this city’s getting worse by the day.”
“You had nothing to do with it?”
“With Nick? Of course not.” He scowled at her. “What do you take me for?”
“Who was it, though?” she pressed. “Who asked for him? How come they were asking you?”
“I figured Nick was moving up in the world,” the tattooed man said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Y’know, starting to get a reputation. Good luck to him, I figured. Gods. Poor kid.”
“Who was it, then?” she asked again.
“We don’t discuss clients,” the tattooed man said automatically, then looked at her, swallowed hard, and put his hands up. “We don’t! You know we don’t! But truth is, I’ve no idea anyway. Full cloak, deep hood. Very tacky, if you ask me, but effective.”
The lizard, leaning on his broom, snorted. “Couldn’t you tell, Jake? Was a Sorcerer. Sorcerer wanting hooked up with some half-arsed street wizard —sorry, girlie, but it’s true. Embarrassing.”
Jake shrugged, his ink rippling with the movement. “It happens from time to time. When they don’t fancy dirtying their own hands.”
“They went off together?” Mali asked.
Jake nodded. “Had a quick chat and left. No sign of any coercion, before you ask, and the client paid the connection fee on the way out. All legit and above-board.”
“Thanks,” she said flatly. “I guess I’ll go try the Society, then.”
Jake snorted. “What, just knock on the front door and say hey, any of your lot out at the Lines last night? You’ll be taking bits of you home in a bucket.” He shook his head. “You take my advice, you’ll leave it. Whatever trouble Nick got himself into, it’s a damn shame, but you gotta look after your own hide, yeah?”
She looked at him, and he threw up his hands. “Whatever. Good luck.”
Back out in the alleyway she stood, unsure. A Sorcerer. Jake was right; she could get in easily enough, but how was she going to find the right person?
Someone coughed, and she whirled round. The lizard was there, pulling a small velvet bag out of the pocket of his apron.
“Here. That Sorcerer had a drink, last night.”
Mali cautiously took the bag and peered into it to see a glass with a sticky residue at the bottom of it.
“But he had gloves, right?” she said.
The lizard shook his head. “No gloves. Stupid. Had him down for a student. Jumpy. Careless. Figured could find him, worth a few units not to tell his master where he’d been. Been and left proof, no less.” He shook his head disapprovingly. “There it is, if you’ve someone who can use it.”
“Yes,” Mali said, quietly. “I have. Thanks.” She tucked the bag away in a pocket. “Do you want something for it?”
The lizard shrugged, and shook his head. “Nah. Take it. Nick was a good kid. Can’t be doing with Sorcerers.”
He flicked his tongue out in disgust, then left. Mali looked at the bag.
The Society complex, a warren of buildings of different ages and styles built around two connected quadrangles, was west of the Lines, further from the river. The streets here were wider, and more regularly swept, and Mali didn’t know them well. She began to feel conspicuous; but she didn’t want to wait. She ducked her head slightly and did her best to look like a servant out on an errand.
Around the Society itself, though, the houses were smaller again. Rich folk wouldn’t live this close to it; those who did were generally involved in tending to the needs of Sorcerers and their apprentice-students. Ingredients, bookstalls, healers, food-hawkers, the odd eatery. No hedge-witches round here; just like Sorcerers stayed away from the Southmarket.
Rumour had it that a sufficiently talented hedge-witch could apply as an apprentice. Mali’d never heard of it happening for real. Sorcerers were here, hedge-witches were there, and that was that. Money talked in magic like it did in anything else. The Nicks of this world would never walk through the Society gates, regardless of their dream-tales. Mali’s dream-tales didn’t involve going anywhere near the Society; but then, this wasn’t a dream-tale, and she wouldn’t be using the gates.
A couple of streets away from the Society itself was the alleyway she was looking for, with its convenient drainpipe. The Society held that any Sorcerer who couldn’t protect their own person and belongings was better off without either, so threw no wards around the complex. Mali knew the route in by description —knowledge was useful, so she’d bartered with a couple of acquaintances who worked in this area —but she’d never run it herself. Too much magic to be safe. Too risky if they caught her. She repressed a shiver. She would just have to not get caught.
She followed the circuitous route around the higgeldy-piggeldy rooftops and their inconvenient mix of heights and street-widths. As she got to the complex itself, her teeth itched with the magic oozing from the stones, humming and fizzing, wound through the buildings over the centuries.
When she reached the student quarters, after a couple of minutes and one particularly awkward move, she crouched for a moment to catch her breath. Slowly, she pulled the bag out of her pocket, then stopped, hand shaking. She was Mali now, and Mali didn’t use magic. Then she thought of Nick’s body, white-cold on her doorstep, and her chin went up.
This was a tool. It was once, once only, just for this.
Teeth set, she drew her knife swiftly across her left forearm. She wiped her right-hand fingers across the cut, and reached into the bag for the glass. She could feel something already where her fingers left bloody fingerprints on the glass, but for good measure she waited until another drop of blood had gathered, and let it fall into the glass.
Around her, the lines of magic leapt to life, a tracery of colour across the stones shining brighter than the mid-morning sunlight. It told her already, written in light, that Nick had never been here. She concentrated instead on the glass.
The image of the person who had held it took shape in her mind. Her sight plummeted down through one, two, three floors, following a yellow-blue shimmering thread, before she saw him, dozing on a narrow student bed, a book open on his skinny chest. She fixed the location in her mind, and dropped the glass back into the bag. She expected the magic to fade, but she could still see it; the shining tracery of the old magic in the stones, and that yellow-blue thread. She shivered.
You could, dearie, you could.
This was for once. Just for once. This wasn’t her, it wasn’t for her. This was for Nick. She pushed any other thoughts back down into darkness.
She found a window to slide through, and followed the thread downwards and down a flight of stairs, to the door she wanted. The lock was barely worth the bother of picking. She hesitated for a moment, looking at the apprentice, the magic telling her that she could just pick the information from his mind. It would be easy. Easy.
She got her knife to his throat just as he woke up.
“I… what the…” he spluttered, the book falling to the floor. Then he took a breath, and Mali saw the lines of magic bend.
“I really wouldn’t,” she said, mildly. “You think one more thought like that, and I’ll know.” She pressed a little harder with the knife.
This incompetent child hadn’t killed Nick. He just had information. And after that, it was embarrassingly easy to extract it. He hadn’t known who had paid him, just what they wanted: Nick Shades (“some street wizard”, she saw the thought behind his eyes) to a particular location. The money was good. It didn’t sound arduous. Nick had been alive when he left.
“You know who sent you,” Mali said, bone-certain.
“They told me not to ask. They told me.”
His eyes darted around. Mali waited.
“Shit! It was Proctor Gideon. We did this spell in class, I shouldn’t have, I… Whoever it was, they were sent by Proctor Gideon.”
It took all Mali’s self-control not to move a muscle.
“But he said I mustn’t tell anyone… oh gods.”
“Don’t worry,” Mali said. “I’ll make sure no one can trace it back to you.” One way or another.
Mali waited for nightfall in a cobbler’s disused attic, jumping every time the shop’s bell jingled under her feet.
Proctor Gideon. The Baron’s secretary. The Baron. She shivered, compulsively, memories of Gideon’s sharp sardonic face flickering in her head. But, surely, surely, it must be Gideon working off his own bat, though then how in the hells had Nick had gotten involved? But Nick never did have much sense. Maybe he was just collateral damage, unrelated.
It couldn’t possibly be anything to do with her. Just coincidence. Gideon had his fingers in plenty of pies. If he knew where she was then the Baron would know, and then she’d be back there already.
She had to avenge Nick. Nothing else mattered. She felt hollow around the anger, hollow all the way out to her skin.
At least she knew how to get in. She’d got out, after all.
It was well past midnight, the coldest and the slowest part of the night, when she made her way up the castle wall. It wasn’t easy. She hadn’t expected it to be easy. But the tiny footholds in the nearly-smooth wall were enough, and tonight, she had the ice-cold nerve that had sometimes eluded her. She knew, as if she were being told, which hold to use. She moved up the wall like a dancer, and told herself that all the practice had finally paid off. She ignored Ariadne’s voice in her head.
She knew exactly where she was going. Once there, she paused below Gideon’s window, and used her free hand to slice across her arm. It felt almost as if the threads of magic that sprang into view, outlining the wards, had already been in her vision.
She peered through the window. The curtains were open, but the room was dark, and the bed was empty.
He must be in his office. Gideon had never seemed to need much sleep. It had an outside window, but it would be faster to go through than around. She found a corridor window, with weaker wards, which she melted away with fingertips dabbed with blood. Even corridor wards weren’t that weak. But then, she knew already what was in her blood.
She had to avenge Nick. Nothing else mattered. Nick had saved her, and she hadn’t saved him, and now he was dead. She owed him.
The office door was unwarded. She took a deep breath, hefted her dagger in her hand, and walked in.
The room was dark, lit only by a magelight on the opposite wall. Mali saw a silhouette at the desk. Gideon, it must be Gideon, and she was bringing her arm up, just scare him, she wanted answers first… Then the door behind her slammed shut, and her eyes finished adjusting, and her arm hiccoughed and halted.
Not Gideon. The Baron.
Memory crashed in and swirled around her, blood and candlelight and misery.
“I knew you’d come back eventually,” he said, sounding satisfied.
There was a beaker of blood —Nick’s blood —on the desk in front of him. Mali pulled herself out of her remembered panic.
“You killed Nick,” she said, and threw.
She’d never thrown to kill before, but the knife met his chest exactly where she’d aimed. The Baron shook his head at her, disapproving, and the honed point skittered down his chest, scoring through the fabric. He caught the knife before it could clatter to the floor.
“Really,” he said, “you have been socialising with quite inappropriate people during your absence.”
He dipped his fingers in the beaker, then shook them across the floor. He got up and she tried desperately to move, to run, but her feet were rooted to the floor.
He came towards her, and took her chin between his fingers. She could feel the tingle from the blood on his other hand —Nick’s, Nick’s blood —resonating more strongly now it was closer to her, and her stomach turned at the metallic smell. She stared at the Baron, hatred rising through her, but still she couldn’t move.
“I made you,” he said softly. “You cannot stand against me.”
He had made her. With blood and bone and magic, to channel more magic. Her first memories were confused, flashes of light and darkness, of an all-body ache that she couldn’t escape. Then the clearer memories, standing in the middle of the ritual chamber, over and over again, surrounded by a ring of thick white candles as tall as her, and the Baron moving in the shadows beyond the candlelight, tipping a beaker onto the floor until the thick liquid ran down to touch her bare feet, and the tingling of magic filled her. Afterwards she would be sick and shaking in her room for days, as the resonance in her bones and blood strengthened again.
Slowly, over time, she’d worked it out. A half-envious comment from Gideon, a strong Sorcerer himself; the magical principles he was teaching her; that ritual chamber and the nothing before it. Cryptic comments from the Baron whenever he returned her to that candle-lit circle.
The Baron had made her, of blood and bone and stolen life. She had known, then, that her magic already outstripped Gideon, even if he wouldn’t teach her to use it. She had known, finally, that the Baron was creating her to control that ability, to join with him in his castings and increase his power beyond all resistance.
She had run. Out of a window, and halfway down the wall it occurred to her to wonder how she knew how to climb. Who had known, before their blood was hers? For a moment she’d nearly opened her hands and let herself drop. But she hadn’t chosen how she’d come to be, and she couldn’t change it. All she could do was to live with it.
She couldn’t see how to climb the city wall, ten metres of spelled-slick granite always under watch, and the gates meant papers she didn’t have. Then she’d fallen in with Nick, and by the time she could have got them, she’d believed herself safe. Or chosen to; she hadn’t wanted to leave that first experience of friendship, of something that felt like home. Stupid.
Desperately, now, she struggled again to run. The Baron’s will surrounded her, and after a moment she sagged slightly in his grip.
The Baron nodded approvingly, and let go. He looked down at the hilt of the knife in her boot, and dismissed it with a shrug. Mali’s teeth ground together, but she couldn’t so much as reach towards it.
“Once you experience what we will undertake together, once you feel the magic, I assure you, my dear, you will agree it is more than worth any sacrifice.”
He glanced over at the beaker on the desk. “It’s poor quality, but then again, the relationship strengthens it. So perhaps all this trouble was for the best after all.”
He turned to walk back towards the desk, and Mali snarled.
Sacrifice. As if he ever made sacrifice of himself. The bare handful of scars on the Baron’s arms were decades old, from his very first forays into magic, before he was strong enough to use only power from others. Mali looked at the beaker on his desk and swallowed against nausea. Her fault. Her fault.
Her anger was growing, uncoiling, as her breathing quickened and her fingertips tingled. The tangled lines of magic around the room shone brighter.
If only she had her knife. If only she could do something, anything… Magic sang through her blood, echoing inside her skull.
“If I’d known how straightforward it would be to bring you back,” the Baron said over his shoulder, “I would have arranged it far earlier. Still, perhaps your time outside has done you good. We shall see.”
The tingle spread up her arms, down her legs, under every inch of her skin. The anger burnt hot now, and she breathed sharply into it and felt the Baron’s will shake off her like water from a hot pan. As he turned, his mouth opening in surprise, her knife flew up into her hand, and she threw it straight at his neck.
It slid into him this time as if it had been magnetised, and he crumpled sideways with a bubbling cry. The beaker fell to the floor and Nick’s blood spread out under him, mingling with his own. Mali stood and watched, curiously, as he blinked at her, tried to say something. Asking? Threatening? Then his mouth fell open, and his eyes rolled back, and he died.
She staggered sideways as the magic lines wound through the room shuddered with earthquake violence. The guards would be here soon. She supposed she should feel something, joy or terror or some emotion she couldn’t think of. But for a moment, it seemed that she could once again no longer move, nor even think. Perhaps, as the Baron’s creation, she would die with him.
She wasn’t sure how long that moment of suspended animation lasted. Then someone thumped on the door, and her mind moved again.
The trouble was, she had no idea how to get out. She hadn’t planned for leaving, even when she’d thought it was just Gideon. She hadn’t really planned at all. She’d never make it down from the balcony, not with guards everywhere.
She walked across to the Baron’s body to retrieve her knife from his neck, then stopped and looked down at the blood on her hands.
No. Not that. Something ticked in her head, something about when she’d broken free. Dirt on her hands, no blood left, and the Baron’s shock… No blood. She had had no blood on her hands, and she had used magic anyway.
She could hear axe-strokes on the other side of the door. She crossed the room to the basin of water stood against the wall. She poured water over her hands, again and again, blood and water cascading to the floor, then raised them in front of her face, turning them over. Clean.
She was magic. Built of magic, made from magic. Magic and blood and bone. She hadn’t asked for it, hadn’t wanted it, hadn’t chosen to be made; but she couldn’t change it. She had run from it for two years, but what was the point in that? Not using it wouldn’t help, her or anyone else.
But never again with blood. Hers or anyone else’s.
She turned to the balcony, and flung the glass doors open. The sun was just rising on the horizon, its light bathing her as she climbed onto the balcony rail and balanced there. Below her, she could see the city, and the sparkle of the river’s curve. She’d never been afraid above the ground.
The door of the room splintered.
Mali spread her arms, hands full of her own power, and jumped into the sunrise.